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'Participatory Sensing' App Enables Safe Bicycle Commuting

The Civic Bicycle Commuting project is a coalition of organizations in Los Angeles working on a data-driven, community-based platform that encourages bike commuting and makes it easy and accessible.

CiBiCi engaging with the community at Community & Unity: People’s Kite Festival in Los Angeles
The CiBiC team engaging with the community at Community & Unity: People’s Kite Festival in Los Angeles.
MetroLab Network has partnered with Government Technology to bring its readers a segment called the MetroLab Innovation of the Month series, which highlights impactful tech, data and innovation projects underway between cities and universities. In a special series, the Innovation of the Month is currently focusing on the award-winning and innovative projects championed by MetroLab’s member universities and civic partners that advanced to Stage 2 of the NSF Civic Innovation Challenge. If you’d like to learn more or contact the project leads, please contact MetroLab at for more information.

This month’s CIVIC Stage 2 Innovation of the Month installment highlights a project called “Enabling Safe, Community-wide Bike-to-Work Strategies via Participatory Sensing.” The project is building a collective bicycle commuting system designed to promote and enable new bicyclists.

MetroLab Network’s Elias Gbadamosi spoke with the CiBiC team’s civic and academic partners — including professor Fabian Wagmister, Josue Ibañez, Daniel Calderón and Elburz Sorkhabi — about their engagement process and implementation plan in Stage 2 of the Civic Innovation Challenge.

Elias Gbadamosi: Can you briefly describe the Bike-to-Work project and the role of each partner?

CiBiC Team: The Civic Bicycle Commuting (CiBiC) project is a community-based and collective bicycling commuting system designed to promote and enable new bicyclists. The project explores a human infrastructure approach and a participatory technological platform to generate neighborhood-based communities of practice co-creating safe and enjoyable routes. By enabling a large number of neighbors to collaborate, sharing their needs and supporting each other, CiBiC will generate the critical mass necessary to address the concerns of the many people interested in bicycle commuting but afraid to do it on their own.

At a practical level, the system takes the geographical and temporal commuting needs of many community members and designs collective routes that we call "flows," and stable riding groupings that we call "pods." Each rider becomes part of a pod in the flow. A structured system that provides a reliable, safe and enjoyable way to get to work by bicycle.

CiBiC is intended to provide a bicycle commuting solution for underserved communities where bike lanes and other bicycling services have historically lagged behind. Physical infrastructure, involving a long political and administrative process and large-scale investment, is not productive. Alternatively, CiBiC’s human infrastructure approach is driven by the community and can itself become an advocacy tool and a catalyst for longer-term physical interventions. The solution offers relatively rapid deployment possibilities, progressive scalability and adaptable duplicability to multiple geographic and cultural contexts.

We have many incredible partners working on the project:

UCLA REMAP are the principal investigators of the CiBiC research project and are responsible for overall design, coordination and delivery.

UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs’ role is to lead the research and research instruments of the project and to understand if bicycle commuting can have a positive impact on transportation satisfaction and provide added transportation flexibility to address spatial mismatch issues.

SudoMagic’s role is to create the interpretative cartography system of the CiBiC project. This takes the form of both an in-person interactive media installation and an online experience that helps create a connection between commuters and the evolution of the commuting system itself as a form of collective action.

Sorkhabi International is working on management and coordination of all the partners, which includes collaborating with a mix of academic institutions, nonprofit community organizations, commercial design studios and mobile app development studios.

RideAmigos’ role is to develop and expand their Pave mobile application to support collective bicycle commuting and to facilitate the data required for the research team and the interpretive cartography teams.

Los Angeles River State Park Partners’ role is to connect with and engage the community. They are the lead recruiters of users for the CiBiC system.

People for Mobility Justice are the cycling and mobility experts of our project. Their role in the CiBiC project is to develop and guide the human infrastructure of cycling and the community of practice. This is to ensure both the safety and satisfaction of all participants in the project and to evaluate all of the project's elements through the critical lens of equity, diversity and inclusion.
 Images of the Pave app that riders will use to join their pods and commutes
Images of the Pave app that riders will use to join their Pods and commutes.
Gbadamosi: This project is focused specifically on bicycling. Tell us about the importance and role of bicycles as a mode of transportation in cities.

CiBiC Team: People that commute by bicycle often refer to their trips to work and back in a positive light, as something they enjoy, while car and public transportation commuters find their trips to be a source of stress and even grief. We strongly believe that adoption of the bicycle at the individual and collective level is for many reasons a positive, transformative urban action. This is particularly important for underserved communities because the bicycle as collective action can provide an important sense of self-reliance and control over their own approach to transportation.

Additionally, bicycles provide significant financial, health and environmental benefits to riders and their communities. We believe that bicycles can provide a much higher level of transportation satisfaction among low-income communities.

Gbadamosi: Could you tell us more about the data-driven public art component of this project?

CiBiC Team: It is quietly one of the critical parts of the project! If you’re unfamiliar with the state of the art in data-driven public art, we are developing an innovative system where the in-person and online experiences use real-time data from the CiBiC participants and visualize the system in both interpretive and illustrative ways. Our flows participatory artwork allows riders and others to view the growth and evolution of the system from the microcosm of individual rides to the macrocosm of whole commuting flows. The goal of this is to foster individual ownership and collective identity to motivate long-term participation and to promote adoption of new riders. The artistic component of this project acts as a way to “close the loop” for participants, where they are able to see the growth of the system and the impact they’re having on their community and their city.

Participatory community art activities are often used in social service and community empowerment projects, but we have not found any examples of previous similar work in relation to transportation projects.

Riders of CiBiC will be co-authors of an interactive artwork demonstrating the levels of individual and collective transportation satisfaction resulting from our collective bicycle commuting system.

The evolving artwork will be displayed as installations in public spaces, transportation hubs and community centers and also on the Internet.

Gbadamosi: How do residents and users interact with this project? Can you walk us through a day in the life of an L.A. cyclist leveraging your work?

CiBiC Team: We’ve built the CiBiC system, especially with our partner RideAmigos, to be as simple and intuitive as possible. Participants in the project start by registering for the Pave app through our website, after which they are guided on how to complete their commuting profiles including their work locations and hours.

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Participants are then grouped along commuting corridors (flows) and divided into pods (small groups of riders) based on the algorithms and data of the whole CiBiC system. They are given their commuting schedule in the app interface and are instructed where and when to meet their pod. Notifications help participants manage when they should be leaving their homes to meet their pods on time.

Participants can then commute to work in a safe and enjoyable fashion. When they finish their work day, the system provides them the same experience in reverse. The app notifies them when they should leave work and where to meet their pod, and assists them in their commute back home.

To provide the necessary human support for novice bicycle riders, each pod is led by a steward, a trained and experienced bicycle commuter. Additionally, those interested in joining the system can request a mentor that will answer their questions about bicycle commuting and even provide personal accompaniment from home to work and back of the first few commutes.

This is what our community of practice approach is all about: people helping people with technology as a tool for collective creative empowerment.

Gbadamosi: What are some of your initial findings, and how are these findings changing how the team views bicycle commuting in Los Angeles?

CiBiC Team: We have undertaken a series of test rides mocking up the commuting situation on weekend days to provide a safe environment in which to build experience and fine-tune our approach. We have learned that group riding in the context of the time pressures of commuting requires very well-defined rules of engagement and clear collective agreements on riding behavior and situational responses. This unique social characteristic of our collective bicycling system also demands particular attention to find an appropriate balance between collective supportive behaviors and personal autonomy. We have realized that practical pre-riding protocols, manuals and education of new riders are going to be fundamental to a consistent experience.

A look at the data-driven nature of the Flow curation to best design the commutes around the needs of the community.
A look at the data-driven nature of the Flow curation to best design the commutes around the needs of the community.
We have also learned important lessons about the human infrastructure roles. Once again, the conditions of collective bicycle commuting are so remarkably different from the types of group rides most of us have experienced that we are having to build new knowledge and new practices based on our series of test rides. For example our pod stewards must balance the work obligations of riders, the safety conditions on the road and the transportation satisfaction objective of the project.

In July we will be producing a full week of actual commuting rides along a single flow. We are very excited to see our system serving community members going to work.

Another set of lessons involves the recruiting effort. While our stage one community surveys showed significant levels of interest in bicycle commuting, getting people to sign up and participate is very challenging. We have learned that direct in-the-community contact at park festivals, farmers markets and neighborhood meetings are essential opportunities for engagement and dialog.

Gbadamosi: It is obvious that scalability and transferability are top-of-the-agenda items for the team. Where do you see this project going from here?

CiBiC Team: Our community of practice and human infrastructure are key enablers to both scalability and transferability. In practice, these pillars of community and human infrastructure build a system where participants have control over the system and ownership over the things that happen within it. Riders gain experience over their commutes and become mentors who support new riders. New rider information helps dictate the commuting flows and pod schedule/formation. New flows and more pods facilitate more ridership and engagement with new communities. All these factors create a dynamic system that responds to an active community instead of dictating what that community should conform to.

The technology is, at the end of the day, a high-level organizer of data sets and helps facilitate the people involved at the heart of the system. This human infrastructure also keeps the system relatively low cost and does not require physical intervention in the urban environment, allowing it to be moved to many parts of the world that would not have the economic ability to initiate transportation pilots with large technology costs. Our goal is to get our work into those hands where the communities can take control and enable a healthier and more satisfactory means of transportation for all people.

To test how our system adapts to different urban and social environments, our team is collaborating with the PedaLudico community bicycle project in Buenos Aires, Argentina. Our partners there have secured funding to deploy a CiBiC prototype in the underserved communities of the southern districts of the city. Comparing the dynamics of implementation in such different contexts will provide us with very important lessons for broader transferability and long-term, sustainable scalability.
Elias Gbadamosi is civic research communications manager for Metrolab Network, responsible for the organization's communication, outreach and engagement programs. His work and interests converge at the intersection of civic communication, civic engagement and policy research.